Seeing a whale in Antarctic waters is nothing short of extraordinary. Thousands of humpbacks, fins, orcas and minkes spend the continent’s summer months feeding in its frigid, nutrient-rich waters before the bulk of them migrate north. From December through February, it’s typical to spot whales breaching shipside or witness the rising fluke of a humpback as it starts its feeding dive deep below the ocean’s surface.

Now, imagine seeing these magical marine mammals in the company of an accomplished and engaging research scientist—one who specializes in the behavior of baleen and toothed whales and how they relate to changes in their environments.

This February, Ari Friedlaender, Ph.D.—a renowned marine ecologist in the University of Santa Cruz’s Department of Ocean Sciences and Institute of Marine Sciences—joins passengers aboard Nat Hab’s 13-day Ultimate Antarctica by Expedition Yacht trip.

Nat Hab travelers wave in front of the Hanse Explorer

Hanse Explorer © Martin Enckell

The intimate, 12-passenger Antarctic journey takes place aboard a 156-foot luxury expedition yacht, the Hanse Explorer. In a world of porpoising penguins and awe-inspiring icebergs, Nat Hab guests will also have an opportunity to join in on some of Friedlaender’s whale research and even engage in some hands-on participation—including uploading their pics of minkes, fins, and humpbacks to a whale I.D. database.

Who Is Ari Friedlaender?

Ari Friedlaender

© Ari Friedlaender

Friedlaender has dedicated his career to studying whales and developing solutions for their conservation. As head of the Friedlaender Lab at UC Santa Cruz, he utilizes new biotelemetry technology to understand the underwater behavior and ecology of marine mammals.

Over the course of his career, Friedlaender has taken more than 40 trips to Antarctica to study whale behavior. His work has even been featured in National Geographic’s 2016 documentary series, Continent 7. However, this is his first-ever outing with Nat Hab.

“While we have guest speakers on our trips pretty often, having a scientist doing research on board—especially in Antarctica—is quite rare,” says Colby Brokvist, the trip’s Expedition Leader. “However, for a variety of reasons, the stars just aligned this year.”

Sea Ice and Climate Change: What Whales Can Tell Us

Over the course of the upcoming Hanse Explorer expedition, trip participants will have an opportunity to interact with Friedlaender, as well as get a front-row seat to how he collects whale specimens and processes them in the field. This includes the gathering of biopsy samples from a variety of whale species, which he then uses to track pregnancy rates and relate them to ice and prey conditions from the previous season.

Ari Friedlaender attaches a D-TAG to a pilot whale.

Ari Friedlaender attaches a D-TAG to a pilot whale. © U.S. Navy photo by Ari S. Friedlaender, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition, Friedlaender will be deploying video-recording, motion-sensing tags to expand data collected on minke whales and humpback whale calves, as well as fin, blue, and even Arnoux’s beaked whales (if encountered). Along with showing the whale’s movements and activity, such data is especially useful in assessing the importance of sea ice for various whale species. It demonstrates the many ways their biology, behavior, and physiology are impacted by climate change’s effect on the Antarctic Peninsula—a mostly ice-covered stretch of land protruding 810 miles northward off the continent.

“Warming temperatures are leading to a smaller volume of sea ice,” says Friedlaender, “as well as a decreasing number of days that sea ice covers the area.” This, in turn, has a direct impact on a number of whale species. For instance, minke whales are some of the most ice-adapted baleen whales on the planet. “They navigate through it, feed beneath it…this is their niche,” he says. So when the sea ice disappears, so does the minke whales’ habitat.

Small, swimming crustaceans known as Antarctic krill are a major food source for whales (as well as a bevy of other Antarctic wildlife). They’re also dependent on sea ice—especially juvenile krill, which rely on the microbial community and the bacteria that live within it. “It’s what juvenile krill feed on during their first winter,” says Friedlaender. When sea ice shrinks and/or its season shortens, the number of krill that successfully survive the winter decreases as well.

The Importance of Ari Friedlaender’s Whale Work

Through their studies—including the tracking of baleen pregnancy rates—Friedlaender and his team have determined that less sea ice (and, in turn, less prey) leads to a lower number of pregnant whales the following year. This can adversely affect how whale populations grow.

In order to study these marine mammals in Antarctic waters, Friedlaender’s research Zodiac has to get close enough to tag them. Depending on the method he’s using (Friedlaender switches between utilizing a nearly 20-foot-long pole to attach a tag through suction and a compressed air gun outfitted with a crossbow and hollow-tipped dart), his Zodiac will typically get within 16 to 100 feet of a whale. This means that Nat Hab passengers following in a separate Zodiac can get an up-close view as well, although Friedlaender works with the boat’s operator to determine just how close.

Humpback Whale looking from blue sea, with icy mountain background, Antarctica

Humpback whale, Antarctica.

“If the conditions are calm and the animals are calm, we can all be a little nearer to the wildlife,” he says, “but if the animals are a little bit more mobile and we’re moving around a little quicker, I might ask the passenger Zodiac to stay back a little bit more.”

Along with collecting biopsy samples and deploying video-recording, motion-sensing tags, Friedlaender will also employ drones to fly over whales at the surface. This way, he can collect images that can determine their precise measurements, including calculating a whale’s length (“This tells us something about the mammal’s age,” he says) as well as its width. The latter, says Friedlaender, is an indicator of health, both of the animal itself as well as of its surrounding ecosystem.

> Read: How to Choose the Best Antarctica Trip for You

Identifying Individual Whales

For some of Antarctica’s whales, this isn’t their first research rodeo. In fact, many of them have been tagged before.

There are two ways to determine whether a whale has been studied previously. One is from the biopsy sample. “We actually can look at the genetics to see if this whale is already in our system,” says Friedlaender.

A humpback whale dives under the water in Antarctica, showing its tail flukes.

A humpback whale dives under the water in Antarctica, showing its tail flukes.

When it comes to humpback whales, each of them has a unique color pattern and edge pattern on the underside of their flukes—something akin to a fingerprint. The more distinct their features, the more recognizable they are. Friedlaender works with a program that automates the process for him, uploading the fluke photos into a database.

“These images can tell us immediately, ‘You sampled this animal four years ago,’” Friedlaender says.

The Bottom Line

“Having Ari on this trip is a big deal for our guests,” says Brokvist, “and one that’s really important to the conservation travel message, which is the core ethos of both Nat Hab and our conservation partner, World Wildlife Fund. In this case, it’s research that’s directly going toward supporting the marine protected areas in Antarctica.”

But for Friedlaender, the opportunity to get aboard such a small ship—and to travel with a small group of people who are highly motivated to be there—is a pleasure all his own.

“If my team and I only communicate with other scientists, there’s a very small incremental change in knowledge,” Friedlaender says. “It’s when we engage with members of the general public that we can have the biggest impact on the things that need changing.”

Want to spot whales and other Antarctic wildlife for yourself? Join us on an upcoming Antarctica expedition!